After just over 11 months of play we are down to the final ATP singles contest on the calender, and fittingly it matches up the two best tennis players in the world, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Both guys advanced over Swiss opposition in straight set fashion in the semis of the year-end ATP Finals played in London.
Nadal resumed his dominance over Roger Federer defeating the 32-year-old 7-5, 6-3. Federer did his best to hang around, playing an aggressive brand of tennis and taking it to Nadal. But Rafa is just the stronger, better player right now and he was able to eventually break Federer down and take the match, though it wasn’t easy.
Nadal served for the first set at 5-4 but was promptly re-broken by Federer. Nadal then broke again and then at 6-5 was able to close the door.
“I saved a few important breakpoints, very important ones, and then I played a good game when I had the break,” Nadal said. “The key of the match was probably the 5‑All after he had the break back in the first set when I was serving for the set. Had the break another time. Put 6‑5 in my favor. That was very important.”
After the first, Federer really never got back into the match as he had in previous tussles with the top guys this fall. Perhaps the long win yesterday over Del Potro depleted his reserves.
“He was playing more consistent,” admitted Federer. “He was playing more solid. He plays the way he always plays. I just couldn’t come up with the shots when I needed them, forehand or serve, moving forward.
It’s unbelievable that he gets away with playing so far back indoors these days, but that’s the conditions. So credit to him for making that work for him.”
For Federer, despite the loss the season ends on an upswing and with some much-needed momentum. After just one Top 10 win during the year Federer picked up three in the last couple of weeks and he really pushed Djokovic in two matches. So maybe the back ailment really did damage his game, or maybe he just plays better indoors. We’ll find out in two months when new season starts up outdoors, but it’s a positive sign to what concludes a disappointing season for Roger.
In the second semi, Novak Djokovic got down a break to Stan Wawrinka before cruising 6-3, 6-3 to win his 21st straight match. The Serb looked patchy yesterday in a meaningless affair with Richard Gasquet, but today he was all business.
“One break is not enough, especially at the beginning,” said Wawrinka. “I had the feeling that I was playing good, hitting well the ball. But I think I don’t have enough energy today. I think I was little bit late physically. Against him, that’s make a big difference. I didn’t find a way how to move really inside the court when he give me a few balls.”
So our last tournament final is set, and the participants know each other very, very well.
Rafael Nadal v Novak Djokovic
Nadal and Novak will meet for the 39th time, 6th this season. Nadal, like he does over just about everybody in the Top 40 at present, has the lead in this series 22-16 winning three of five this year.
But Djokovic won their most recent match in Beijing and overall on hardcourts it’s Novak with the advantage 12-7. Rafa does lead Novak 2-1 in matches at the ATP Finals however this is their first encounter at the event this decade.
And after a long season, the two come in playing at a high level and both should be fit.
“Well, we both had a great seasons, especially him,” said Djokovic. “He finishes No. 1 of the world deservedly. Of course, whenever we play each other, it’s a huge challenge and we want to win. This is the probably most competitive tournament that we have after Grand Slams in our sport, and we both want to crown this season in the best possible way and end it with a title.”
And it’s a title Nadal’s never ever won. As I said when the tournament began, indoors doesn’t suit Nadal but Rafa wants this one, one of the few big events he’s yet to capture.
“Is true that this tournament is special and I never had the chance to win here,” Nadal said. “But I know remain a lot of work, probably the most difficult one. And that’s fine, no? I think if I don’t play my best tomorrow, I don’t gonna have chances. I need to play more aggressive.”
The slower, grittier court surface has, I think, helped Rafa this week. And in general, this has been the best season to date for Rafa on the hardcourts, a fact even Novak acknowledges.
“He has immensely improved on hard court,” Djokovic said. “Comparing to all the other surfaces in our sport, this is probably his least preferable, but not this year. This year he has had incredible success. He’s more aggressive. He’s using his serve better.”
Still, the court favors Djokovc. And he’s also the defending champion, on a streak and despite losing out of the No. 1 ranking, he’s got points to earn that will help him down the road. Plus, he matches up nicely against Rafa and with the lower bouncing balls this week, that should help Novak even more.
In a way, after all he’s been through and all he’s accomplished, it would be the fitting storybook ending for Nadal to take the title tomorrow. But often in real life it doesn’t work out that way. Maybe when and if the tournament ever gets moved to clay or back outdoors, Nadal will finally get that elusive win. Just not now.
The pick: Djokovic in two
ESPN2 has live coverage of the final at 3pm ET.
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